Witness's account of 'harassment' at IBA Karachi sparks unprecedented protest, disciplinary proceedings
On August 25, a student witnessed an incident wherein a female employee of the finance department of Karachi's Institute of Business Administration (IBA) was allegedly harassed by a male employee in a supervisory position.
“What I saw was extremely offensive and humiliating. I was shocked that a man could behave like that with a woman in a professional setting, that too in front of other people. Later I went up to the lady and told her that she should not tolerate this and must inform the administration,” says Mohammad Gibrail, a student at the IBA.
The same day, Gibrail shared the entire episode in a Facebook post. Backed by the strength and support offered by students, the woman filed a harassment complaint with the varsity. An inquiry is ongoing on the issue. Meanwhile, a disciplinary committee has been set up at the IBA over Gibrail's Facebook post.
Hailing from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Lakki Marwat, Gibrail says he was outraged by the indignities hurled at the female employee. “Women in our society need to speak up and must not tolerate these behaviours. I even tell this to my sisters,” he emphasises.
On September 17, in an unprecedented development, a large number of IBA students protested in front of the Fauji Foundation Building which houses the administration office, with the premises reverberating with the chants of “We Want Justice!”, “IBA Stands Against Harassment”, “Stop Sheltering Harassment.”
“We joined the protest because we want IBA Karachi to be a safe place. We have often been stared at, heard rude remarks and seen sexist gestures in IBA by male employees. Many of us girls would never go to the finance section unaccompanied. This unsafe environment needs to end,” says F, a female student.
“Getting into the campus requires a lot of checks and balances, but it is shocking to see the misogyny, bullying and sexual harassment that happens inside the premises,” says Z, another student.
The protest was unprecedented for the IBA management as well as alumni, many of them women, who had faced various levels of harassment but were too afraid to speak up or feared being judged. Similar concerns were shared by current and former female students, with a trend emerging that many women felt uncomfortable visiting the finance department.
Harassment at the workplace
The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010, describes “harassment” as any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other verbal or written communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature or sexually demeaning attitudes, causing interference with work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment, or the attempt to punish the complainant for refusal to comply to such a request or making it a condition for employment.
A 2018 survey by Dawn.com found that in response to being asked whether women were made to stay silent about workplace harassment, 61 per cent said their employers did not coerce them to keep quiet, but a significant 35pc were told to remain silent by their colleagues and bosses.
“Nonetheless, when it comes to formal reporting mechanisms, testimonies from women suggest most lack faith in the process — only 17pc of those who experienced harassment approached their organisation’s internal inquiry committees. Despite 59pc reporting that their managements do take harassment seriously, most women expressed worry that managers wouldn’t sanction harassers and their work situations would not improve. Most women felt they would not be believed during investigations or when perpetrators had support in high places,” the survey noted.
A collective statement shared by the protesting IBA students, a copy which is available with Dawn.com, cites “IBA’s inappropriate and illegal response to a harassment case which took place in the finance department of IBA” as the reason behind the protest.
“An IBA student, named Muhammad Gibrail, observed a scene in the finance department on 25th of August, 2021, where the manager of finance department was screaming at that woman and saying, 'Mein tumhe puri raat betha kar rakhoon ga [I will make you sit here all night]'. He shouted at her in an extremely humiliating manner and even out of context, this statement alone is enough to constitute sexual harassment as it is sexually demeaning conduct," the statement read. "In a professional work setting, yelling this way is unacceptable and should not be tolerated, and is indicative of a far-worse toxic masculine culture where such behaviour is normalised and seen as a rite of passage.”
It continued: “Surprisingly, she has been suffering this harassment for last two years. Muhammad Gibrail wrote a post on his Facebook where he spoke of the scene he observed with his own eyes on 25th of August. The complainant is now pursuing her case and what has become evident is that this yelling incident was by no means an isolated event. There are numerous other incidents of workplace sexual harassment, misogynist attitudes, sexual and inappropriate commenting and staring at women that will come to light.
"These are offences under Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace (2010). Although [the] complainant had a strong case under this Act, she was reluctant to file out of fear of retaliation from the department. After Gibrail’s post, she voluntarily decided to file a case against four men at the finance department in the Anti-Harassment Committee of IBA. This was because she felt encouraged for the very first time because someone supported her.”
Meanwhile, Gibrail was summoned to a Disciplinary Committee hearing — which lasted for 14 minutes — in which, he says, he was asked to take down the Facebook post and issue a public apology for defaming the institution and an individual, or face expulsion. Gibrail has refused to apologise. He believes his speech is protected by the Constitution and is exempt from defamation because it was done for the public good and was factual.
On Monday, Sept 20, IBA students held another protest. However, this time the turnout was much lower, the prime reason being the "fear of repercussion" from the administration, according to some students.
A charter of demands presented by the students includes the following:
1) Dismiss from duty or impose serious penalties against all harassers in this harassment case and ensure that further legal action is taken against them outside IBA as well.
2) Take prompt legal action against the registrar of IBA, who tried to intimidate the witness on no lawful basis.
3) The facts of the harassment case and complaint should be made public with the consent of the complainant and/or IBA should make the process transparent, impartial and fair.
4) The hearing against Muhammad Gibrail in DC committee should be made public and he should be allowed his day in court where he is permitted to speak and present his case.
5) The Anti-Harassment Committee of IBA and/or its inquiry committee should be composed of social activists, lawyers, and student representatives excluding IBA officials, and should have clearly written rules of procedure that are in compliance with the law in order to give the appearance of impartiality.
6) If anything happens to the complainant’s health or she resigns under any pressure or if IBA attempts to place her under duress and coerce her to [compromise] or subject her to further mental stress, the administration of IBA will be held responsible and our protest will continue.
7) If any student, employee or teacher who is joining the protest is expelled, rusticated, or made the victim of retaliation for exercising their constitutional right to free speech and protest, the authorities doing so should be held responsible and our protest will continue.
'Inquiries in progress'
When reached for comment, IBA’s Director for Communications Ayesha Javed acknowledged that two inquires were in progress at the institution.
“Recently, some disciplinary action taken within the IBA, Karachi, has gained attention due to social media coverage. This has led to pressure being applied by certain elements to achieve their preferred decisions. We would like to inform you that the IBA has taken unprecedented decisions and actions in the last few days to ensure that students are safe, their concerns are addressed in a timely manner and any sort of irregularities by them are met with zero tolerance by the IBA administration. In order to keep the values and standards of the IBA at stellar levels, the IBA will not tolerate any disregard towards rules, regulations, ethics, and the code of conduct,” a statement by the IBA read.
“Our disciplinary rules, policies and the IBA code of conduct apply to all: faculty, staff and students. While some decisions have been made and communicated, other cases are pending with our respected committees, and decisions will be communicated after thorough scrutiny and investigation. The IBA administration will stand firm with the decisions made and formal concerns communicated via official channels will be addressed," it added.
Meanwhile, when reached for comment on the legalities of the cases, experts said the IBA has discharged its legal obligations by constituting the harassment committee. “You will have to wait and see the final decision of the committee,” a lawyer remarked.
“The victim could challenge the final decision of the IBA harassment committee before the [anti-harassment] ombudsperson, or can withdraw the complaint from IBA and directly approach the office of the ombudsperson. Secondly, she can approach the high court requesting a stay against her forceful removal from service at least till the matter is pending for final adjudication.”
Till December 2020, 461 cases overall were filed under the Workplace Harassment Act, 2010, with the Sindh Provincial Ombudsperson for Protection Against Harassment at Workplace. As many as 350 of these were disposed.
“The boy who reported the matter can't do anything at this stage except appear as a witness on behalf of the victim in any legal proceedings regarding harassment and the alleged incident. If a disciplinary committee has been formed against him or any other similar action is being taken against him, he can approach the high court to challenge the legality and validity of such a committee as he has highlighted the matter being a concerned and responsible citizen and has no personal interest in the matter, and should not be punished for performing his civic duty,” the lawyer added.
As the IBA carries on with the inquiries, the students are planning to hold more protests till what they term "justice" is done and changes are made institutionally to make the environment safer and better for students and staff alike.
Meanwhile, Gibrail stands by his word and says he spoke up in good faith. “I felt it was wrong to stay silent. By ignoring it, we enable harassers.”